Agony and outrage have swept the nation in the wake of the killing of Trayvon Martin. African-American mothers and fathers have been pondering the possibility that he could have been their son. The “hoodie” has emerged as a symbol of solidarity, a rebuke to the notion that an article of clothing should be a life and death matter. The role of implicit racial bias is taking center stage in the national debate. Investigations have been launched at all levels of government and the President himself has called for “soul-searching” among Americans.
What this will all mean remains to be seen. The shooter, George Zimmerman, may or may not face justice. “Stand Your Ground” legislation may or may not survive increased public scrutiny. I wonder how much soul-searching will really take place and what will be discovered if it is.
When I search my soul, I have to acknowledge that I have held similar ideas about Black males to those that likely influenced Zimmerman’s thinking about Trayvon. While this is a source of a shame so deep I can hardly type the words, it is no less true. In America, you do not have to be White to have your psyche haunted by the image of black-male-as-bogeyman. The Reverend Jesse Jackson controversially acknowledged this in a candid comment published by US News in 1996:
“There is nothing more painful to me … than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery, then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved.”
I know this pain well. From a very young age my internalized racial inferority was reflected in my suspicion towards other black males. What I did not understand as a child was that many of them were feeling just like I did. We did not have a language for our alienation and anger. What we did have on too many occasions were harsh words, rituals of humiliation, and misguided masculine posturing. We witnessed adults behaving the same way. Some of us would eventually resort to the fists, sticks, knives, and guns that Geoffrey Canada wrote about. Combined with a lifelong media blitz of negative imagery that could have been lifted right out of an antebellum ad campaign, this dynamic of self/other hatred was hardly conducive to feelings of trust.
It was through the Baha’i Faith that I rediscovered the capacity to love myself and, slowly but surely, other black males. It began under the healing influence of the comparison by its Founder, Baha’u'llah, of black people to the pupil of the eye which is “dark in color but a fountain light and the revealer of … the world.” It accelerated through participation in the Baha’i Black Men’s Gathering, an international fellowship of brothers assisting each other to apply the teachings of Baha’u'llah to the betterment of themselves and humanity as a whole.
Today, my fear has largely given way to faith, aggression to affection, and judgment to compassion. However, old habits of thought die hard and progress requires persistent and prayerful effort even now. I would be lying if I claimed I did not sometimes have that moment of “wondering” when I encounter a young black male with his hoodie up on a dark Boston street.
My earthly journey has taught me that to successfully battle racial biases in the world, I have to first battle them in myself. I have to be truthful about the fact that, paradoxically, I am Trayvon Martin and yet sometimes I am George Zimmerman as well. At least in my mind. As Abdu’l-Baha (1844-1921), Head of the Baha’i Faith from 1892 to 1921, reminds me:
“Truthfulness is the foundation of all the virtues of the world of humanity. Without truthfulness, progress and success in all of the worlds of God are impossible for a soul. When this holy attribute is established in man, all the divine qualities will also become realized.”